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William Oddie FAITH Magazine September-October 2009

A Man With A Mission

The Tablet, yet again, has been in the news for becoming - like Alistair Campbell towards the end of his Downing Street years - the story rather than the messenger. "The Tablet", wrote Damian Thompson for the Telegraph early in July "has welcomed Archbishop Vincent Nichols to Westminster with a snide and mean-spirited profile which suggests that he has become more orthodox in his theology in order to achieve promotion in the Church. The article is a massive error of judgment that will infuriate many Catholics. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read it."

Once more the boot was applied by The Tablet's acerbic deputy Editor Elena Curti (last seen in this column trying to maul Fr Tim Finigan) who seems to have assumed the role of Editor's attack dog: though this time she picked an antagonist who is experienced enough and powerful enough to be able to make those at the Bitter Pill come to wonder if this time they have not bitten off rather more than they can chew. This is part of what Ms. Curti wrote:

The bright and personable priest from Merseyside, who as General Secretary ruled the roost at the Bishops' Conference headquarters at Eccleston Square for eight years from the mid-1980s, was seen by many Catholics at the time as a breath of fresh air [Note: for "many Catholics" read "The Tablet"]. Renowned for his openness and pastoral concerns, he was also an espouser of liberal causes. But while his stock was high among more liberal Catholics, the decision-makers in Rome were said to be less impressed. His mentor, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, watched this in frustration. He reputedly took 'Fr Vin' to one side and told him: "We can't get you into the hierarchy if you carry on like this. You have to make yourself more favourable to Rome." Vincent Nichols' criticssuggest this explains why he became more overtly orthodox when he became Archbishop of Birmingham.

"The Tablet", angrily commented Damian Thompson, "has taken leave of its senses (and its Catholicism) recently. Its hatchet job on Fr Tim Finigan was a disgrace, and now the author of that piece, Ms Curti, has written an ill-judged assessment of the new Archbishop of Westminster at precisely the moment he needs our support. Plus, Vincent is a good man who has been bequeathed one hell of a mess. I didn't think the Bitter Pill could fall any lower in my estimation, but it just has."

All the same, the Tablet's strictures, though undoubtedly vindictive, were not wholly without reason (whether they were justified or not is another matter). There certainly did appear to be a shift in the new archbishop's expected policies when he arrived in Birmingham nine years ago, and many in the diocese (I was one) were profoundly relieved by it. And The Tablet, who thought he was one of their own, were far from pleased. As I observed earlier this year in a speculative piece on the Westminster succession (one of those runners and riders articles so beloved of the editorial mind) written for The Catholic World Report, "When Vincent Nichols went to Birmingham, it was considered a 'liberal' appointment. The arch-liberal weekly The Tablet could hardlycontain its satisfaction that this conservative archdiocese would soon feel the Spirit of Vatican II rippling through its dusty corridors. But The Tablet was soon to be bitterly disillusioned: his first action as archbishop was to confirm his predecessor's withdrawal from a disastrous entanglement (hotly supported by The Tablet) in a Catholic-Anglican ecumenical school. He has since given many signs of his support for the present pope; when many of his episcopal brethren were doing everything they could to undermine the motu proprio establishing the right to celebrate the 'old Mass', he made clear his belief that the rite of John XXIII 'is not a relic, not a reverting to the past, but part of the living tradition of the Church'."

I would not be at all surprised if The Tablet had not been looking for an opportunity to make clear its displeasure at what they have seen as his betrayal of the liberal cause ever since their bitter disillusion all those years ago over the establishment of the firmly Catholic St. Gregory's School in Oxford and the dismantling of its truly awful ecumenical (which in effect meant functionally secular) predecessor.

What can hardly be denied is that Archbishop Nichols is a good deal more inclined to support the authority of Rome than once he was; and it is not only The Tablet which has observed the shift with some scepticism: he was until very recently (and perhaps still is) regarded by many in Rome as one who in Birmingham behaved as an orthodox pope-supporting prelate should in order to get to Westminster. But that would mean that he was only pretending to be orthodox in Birmingham and that as soon as he hit Westminster he would soon revert to type. The fact is not only that he hasn't yet, but that as soon as he arrived in Archbishop's House, he made it very clear in a number of ways that he wasn't going to. Inter alia, as The Catholic Herald reported within amonth of his enthronement,

"Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster... opened the Year for Priests by urging Catholics to devote an hour each week to pray for priests in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

 

"The Archbishop made the plea in a homily at Westminster Cathedral in which he said every parish should focus its year's efforts on a renewal of prayer life.

"He also suggested that parishes introduce Forty Hours' Devotion, where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is kept up continuously at a succession of different churches. "He said the practice would 'sustain us in our life together, enable us to thank God whole-heartedly for the gift of our priests' and be a source for new vocations".

Doubtless, suspicions in Rome will die down as Archbishop Nichols' tenure of his office runs its course. All the same, they have been there, and I suspect that his appointment to Westminster was a deuced close-run thing. If I may be allowed the indulgence of quoting my Catholic World Report speculations (an indulgence perhaps more permissible if I make it clear that I do so against myself since I got it wrong, predicting the appointment of the Abbot of Pluscarden),
 

"[...] however unambiguous his present support for Rome and all its works, there remains a suspicion that at heart he is still the unregenerate liberal everyone supposed him to be when he was - as a result - prevented from succeeding Basil Hume. It is generally believed in Rome that when, at the 1999 European Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, then still Archbishop of Milan, was thought to be advocating a third Vatican Council (he was at the least pressing for more 'collegiality', i.e. less papal authority) he was supported by the then Auxiliary Bishop Nichols. He was quick to deny it; but his denials were not believed, and the story has persisted in Rome among many who will have influence in deciding the Westminster succession."

There is already every sign that these suspicions were misplaced, and that after years of amiable drift, Westminster could soon experience the firm and orthodox leadership it (along with the rest of the English and Welsh Church) has long needed. It is worth looking at Archbishop Nichols' record on national issues during his years in Birmingham. Is it really likely that he could have done all this, and so effectively, without actually believing in it? The Guardian recalled his record in a by no means wholly laudatory profile; like The Tablet, it focused on his betrayal of the liberal secularist cause:
 

"In recent years, Archbishop Nichols - once viewed as a liberal - has been a strident public voice, unafraid of defending the traditional values of the Catholic church. His fierce criticism of the BBC for what he called 'biased and hostile' programming contributed to the cancellation of Popetown, a series which caricatured the Pope on BBC3.

 

"Before new sexual orientation laws, guaranteeing equality in goods and services for the gay community were introduced in April 2007, Archbishop Nichols said the legislation contradicted the faith's 'moral values'. Speaking at a Mass at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham, he said: 'It is simply unacceptable to suggest that the resources of the faith communities [...] can work in cooperation with public authorities only if the faith communities accept not simply a legal framework, but also the moral standards at present being touted by government.'

"Nichols failed in his attempts to get the Catholic adoption agencies exempted from sexual orientation regulations, which forced them to consider gay couples as parents. However, he did achieve a major coup when, as chairman of the Catholic Education Service, he forced the then education secretary, Alan Johnson, to retract plans to impose a non-Catholic quota for Catholic schools."

Nichols is known as a devoted pastor, and his pastoral instincts will undoubtedly soon be sorely tested -as will be his executive decisiveness -by a knotty problem which Cardinal Murphy O'Connor has left in his in-tray, having himself foolishly created it in the first place. For some years, actively homosexual Catholics had regular Sunday Masses in St Anne's, an Anglican church in Soho. In 2007, Cardinal Cormac created a rod for his own back and for his successors' by establishing regular Masses for them in a nearby Catholic Church. This problem was flagged up for Archbishop Nichols' attention immediately his name had been announced for Westminster, by the redoubtable Daphne McLeod, mild-mannered scourge of the English episcopate, who in a welcoming piece for The Flock brought tohis attention once more an issue he would undoubtedly be glad to be able to ignore:
 

"First on the new Archbishop's list will undoubtedly be putting an end to the sacrilegious Masses held every first and third Sunday of the Month in the Church of Our Lady and St Gregory in Soho. These Masses are now in their third year and the priests, ex-priests and Catholic laity who run them are becoming more brazen all the time. For instance, now they erect a display screen in the church during these Masses claiming that these scandalous Masses are fully in line with Church teaching, even though The Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2357 declares homosexual acts to be acts of grave depravity, which under no circumstances can be approved."

There can be little doubt that these masses are not in keeping with Church teaching; and sooner or later this is an issue the new archbishop is going to have to resolve. Apart from anything else, Mrs McLeod is not going to drop this one; and whether they like it or not, the English bishops have become uneasily aware that there are those in Rome who listen to her when she gives them her assessments of what is going on in what some of them see as a remote and mostly God-forsaken part of the Catholic world, of which they know little.

What will Archbishop Vincent do; and how long will it take him to do it? This could be an early and, for many, decisive test of his new episcopate. We may well echo Mrs McLeod's welcoming hopes, and with her "look forward to watching this new broom make a clean sweep of problems which have troubled the Archdiocese of Westminster for the last few years." But let nobody underestimate the skill and resolve it will take to do it.


Faith Magazine

September - October 2009